Healthcare Roundtable: Prescription for a new dialogue


Erica Iacono and Jaimy Lee were in Philadelphia to discuss healthcare.

This year, PRWeek will visit eight cities where an industry close to that respective region will be discussed. For each event, leading PR pros from a variety of firms, companies, and other organizations will gather in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. Erica Iacono and Jaimy Lee were in Philadelphia to discuss healthcare.  


Erica Iacono (PRWeek): How does [the recent election] affect your job as healthcare communicators?


Ray Kerins (Pfizer): You couple the economic state now with the uncertainty of that and people [not taking their] medications along with a new administration, with a completely holistic view of healthcare. Now you've got a different conversation … The idea that there are people in this country without healthcare insurance is a problem .Forty-seven million uninsured Americans is unacceptable. People should have access to medicines. I think, prior to the election, too, we started looking at it from a different point of view … We're trying to look at it from the impact on the consumer, first; the impact on the physician, almost in line, second; and the impact on our people.

Gwen Fisher (Wyeth): I would say that we also have to continue to be concerned about the reputation of the industry. I think that we're continually under siege, we're continually scrutinized, and so I think we have a responsibility, as it relates to the economy, to also make a case about us being a huge contributor to the economic engine within this country. I do know that President-Elect [Barack] Obama, he really believes in increasing funding for [the National Institutes of Health] and I think that's a great thing … but don't forget that our industry is probably the biggest contributor to medicines that are on the market … And I think that we need to tell a better story about how we price our medicines because that's going to continually be an issue given the economy.


Tony Russo (Russo Partners): I do think the upcoming years are going to be a very challenging but [an] exciting time for us in the communications industry because the healthcare story is going to change. I agree that pharmaceuticals will have to justify their pricing structure, for sure, but out of a $2.2 trillion market, it's only a small percentage and the insurance companies in other areas are going to have more challenges than the pharmaceutical sector. And there's going to be opportunities to partner with government to help communicate those changes rather than it be government versus the pharma industry, or government versus the insurers.

Iacono (PRWeek): Julie, what is your take? Obviously, the FDA is in a unique position and has been under scrutiny. What do you anticipate as the challenges with a new administration coming in with a vastly different view on healthcare from the Bush Administration?


Julie Zawisza (FDA): It's certainly very early … It could be that the access and affordability issues – because they're paramount, they're the top-tier, critical issues that a new administration would be looking at – could surpass the thinking about the FDA right away. People want more transparency from the FDA, more predictability, particularly in drug safety issues, and medical product safety issues, and food safety. So, we're looking at all of that as a transition at the highest levels, and what kind of direction we'll get at that level remains to be seen. My guess is that we'll be continuing at more of a micro level with all of the things we're doing now.


Iacono (PRWeek): What are the ways that companies in this sector are currently communicating risk? What are the changes that you think need to be made?


Zawisza (FDA): It's clear to me that we're just not doing enough as an agency. I'm not sure that we, as an enterprise, are doing and explaining this one, very important thing, which is benefit/risk. And, what does that mean? And, how do we communicate risk? And, how do we communicate benefit? Because we don't want people to stop taking their medicines if there's a safety signal that doesn't have sound data behind it. We have to communicate to people: What does it mean when the agency makes a statement, number one? What does it mean when we say there could be a risk but we can't quantify it?

Ray Kerins (Pfizer): Over the last year, we've been doing drug safety briefings, not about a specific product but we've gone into [Washington], Boston, and New York, and had one-on-one educational sessions with reporters, explaining to them: what is risk and what does it mean, explaining the process of [how a] physician and patient reports an AE (adverse event) to a company, what happens next. Risk is a very important topic. There's less reporting going on from reporters who have healthcare-based backgrounds and information. You've got non-healthcare reporters reporting on these problems with risk. If they understand how to deal with risk, we're all in trouble because the information is going to be wrong. It's going to scare patients to stop taking their medicines.

Camela Morrissey (Dorland Global): It's very reactionary.

Kerins (Pfizer): Only the doctor and the patient should decide whether or not that course of treatment should be stopped. So, if we don't do a good job of communicating risk, and communicating why reporters should pay attention to it, we only have ourselves to blame.

Ray Parisi (AstraZeneca): I think how you say something can make a big difference so, basically, being painstaking, being accurate and comprehensive, in reporting what's going on, getting the correct kind of legal and compliance reviews of everything [is important]. But, it's also how you say it. We're talking about these incredibly challenging, scientific terms, and we're trying to bring it down to the right level. And, when you think about the conversation that any of us or any patient has with their physician … it's also because of the way they're talking to you.

Zawisza (FDA): I think, as an industry and as an agency, we can go as far as we can go and then there's still the role of the healthcare provider and we have to look for ways to help them, assist them in communicating these same things you're talking about here because that one-on-one relationship, too, is where people may hear something from you that they wouldn't hear from us.

Russo (Russo Partners): I think it's a complex story. You have the whole situation complicated by the fact that – you talked about social networking – there are adverse events reported on sites like Sermo, that has an obligation to report to the FDA when such adverse events are observed. And, so is that reason enough to pull a drug or send out a warning when it could be idle chatter on a Web site. So I think we're getting into an area where it's hard to just say that “Well, we need to do a better job communicating adverse events.” It's: What are the adverse events? Who's responsible? What's the role of physician? What's the role of the manufacturer? What's the role of the FDA?

Kerins (Pfizer): I think you're dead-on. So, you're on Sermo … and when adverse events are reported on there, you're darn [sure] you better get the right information down to the right people. That place is an unbelievable area for us to have to medical-to-medical conversations. And I don't mean marketing-to-medical. I think risk, again, holds a very important place on that site. Give them the information they need so they can make an educated decision on behalf of other patients.

Candace Steele (Cephalon): We're also looking at the role of the patient. We make scheduled products at Cephalon … and we know that they're associated sometimes with misuse, even with the best intentions. So, we actually opened a dialogue … and used social media techniques and had a Webcast. I think that goes back to transparency and we had to have a lot of conversations in our organization to reconcile our role in that discussion, in that medium, with our regulatory and our legal counsel. We thought that was a need. We felt as a leader in this particular area that we had a role but, at the same time, I think there's a patient role that we need to talk about, and elevate, and add to that discussion, because they're the ones ultimately, hopefully, benefitting from these medications.

Morrissey (Dorland Global): [After working a large, urban hospital], I was really surprised at how disconnected … the communication about drugs and medication is from safety and the hospital, and I think that it's kind of a hole in the fabric. If they've had a surgery, they come out with a prescription. And my question is: Is the information aligned by what they get from the provider? By what they hear from us in the drug industry? And what they actually hear from the hospital? I also think that hospitals are having to be much more transparent about errors and about talking to the patients … and consumers are becoming much more empowered about choosing a hospital where they're now able to compare evidence and data. From a medication standpoint, we really have to look at that and look at where there might be holes there, and how do we bridge that.

Tom Jones (Invigorate Communications): I think we have to ask: Who's responsible? Because every health system is different and every health system is afraid of getting sued so every health system has their own way of putting their precautions.

Morrissey (Dorland Global): You take an issue like antibiotic resistance, where the patient goes to their provider and he or she says to [the patient], “I'm not going to give you XY and Z” or if they're in the hospital and they're worried about hospital-acquired infections because they're only hearing reactionary stories. [Patients] are going to have less choice when they're in the hospital than when they're with their provider. But, then what happens when they leave? When they come back?


Laurie Hurley (Resolute Communications): More and more consumers and patients want that empowerment. They want that engagement. They want to go into their physicians and say, “Here, I want to be better because of this XY and Z and, yes, I'll read the fine print,” but they don't want the responsibility of saying, “I'm accepting that risk for the sake of the benefit” … I think that's an interesting thing because more and the more the media, as its changing, they get access to all that information that's out there but they're not doing research [on] the risks of what decisions are about …

Kerins (Pfizer): It's amazing how you go to your physician, the physician prescribes something for you - you trust that decision. You go to the pharmacist - you trust that. You take the pill … you just take it because there's a significant amount of trust in line. But you don't trust the company that manufactured it. That's an unbelievable opportunity for us to change the dialogue that is happening. That comes with a lot of the open communication. We want AEs to be reported. That's a very important thing. You want the right information, though, to be with those AEs so you can actually make a determination.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): I think for a long time this industry, even though we're evolving, our communication really hasn't been to the consumer … and they are becoming more and more a powerful player in this space. So, when you do have social networking sites, it's an opportunity for us to hear directly from these people, what's important to them, what's valuable to them, and even if it's about an adverse event, it's about being more transparent. I think that we probably have to go that way anyway but we rely on media a lot to tell our stories and there are a lot of reporters out there, who just really frankly don't get it, and they don't understand … So we have this huge opportunity to go directly to people.

Russo (Russo Partners): Well, I also think it's going to be challenging.[There] are a lot of questions that people haven't asked before but, suddenly, they're getting this information and they're thinking to themselves, “Gee. Maybe I should ask some more questions. Maybe I should go armed to my physician with a whole list of questions” and patients are becoming the experts now.

Zawisza (FDA): So are reporters.

Russo (Russo Partners): I think that's what's going on now. Consumers are getting all kinds of information and they're becoming more of an expert and when they go into their physician, they know exactly what to ask. They know what the issues are. They know about the adverse events. They know what risk profile they're looking for. And, they're asking questions about biology, about chemistry, about some clinical trial that some small company is involved in. We're dealing with a much more sophisticated consumer now than we ever have and I think we're going to have to come up with new ways to deal with that knowledge base.

Clif Hotvedt (Ketchum): The problem is that it's an informed consumer but not necessarily discriminating. The information they get – for many consumers – if it's accessible and digestible, they're more likely to take in what it says. I think a lot of the challenge is that people who don't really understand the information they seeing so they go to easy stuff and take that as kind of being representative.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): But we need to build the trust factor. No one is actually regulated the way the pharmaceutical industry is. No one is required to actually put out the factual information the way we are required. People can get on the Internet and say whatever they want … and it doesn't necessarily have to be accurate. But what we do has to be accurate. So, we have an incredible opportunity to position ourselves as a credible source … not just with the consumers, but to continue with the healthcare providers.

Iacono (PRWeek): Healthcare has been the slowest to get into social media and with good reason, obviously with regulations. But, now, more and more, we are seeing more campaigns that are incorporating [social media] … So how are you counseling your clients? And counseling your companies?

Hurley (Resolute Communications): People use the Internet and talk about healthcare more than everything. At the same time, the people who are the most expert at it … are the physicians and the pharmaceutical companies and yet they feel that there's gags on them because of legal and regulatory aspects …

Russo (Russo Partners): I think that's why the pharmaceutical industry, and to a large degree the healthcare industry, has been focused on Web 1.0 and the consumer industry is on to 2.0. The fear of engaging in a dialogue with a consumer on the part of the manufacturer has prevented a dialogue from occurring.

Zawisza (FDA): Because you feel like you might be practicing medicine, for one thing. I think that's one of our concerns at the FDA, appearing to be practicing medicine by having that kind of interaction. If we were doing interactive media and new media, we wouldn't be giving advice, exactly, or counseling, or medical advice.

Kerins (Pfizer): So, we are engaging, heavily, in the areas where you know you can at least have a voice. The media-sponsored blogs are clearly a terrific opportunity … medical-sponsored environments, where you can actually have a conversation. I've yet – knock on wood – to have legal tell me I can't do something. We need to do it. We have no choice.

Steele (Cephalon): We know millions of patients are online. We know this is happening, this is a gap. And the reason it's happening is that they're not coming to us for information because we're still trying to figure it out. We assessed all the different types of opportunities in Web 2.0 and we decided, with the right people around the table, which ones we can engage in. It's been a news driver for us. We actually get it as an issue. How do you keep track of that? Which [blogs] do you monitor? We can't sit here and do nothing. We talk about what can we do, and then try to advance that everyday, every quarter, because a year from now it's just going to be different. It's just another channel, and all the rules apply. You have to be compliant, you have to have credible information and credible sources, it has to be relevant, it has to be simple enough to tell a story, and it's just a matter of reconciling with the right people

Zawisza (FDA): We actually are exploring it … [The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is] way out there compared to the FDA. There is so much, as you said, tremendous opportunity there for us to think about and explore. The FDA can't do it alone, you can't do it alone, healthcare can't do it alone, the plans can't do it alone. The partnership approach is, we think, the way we have to go in order to make this successful. But one of things that came up then, at least in my mind, was to reach the patient or the consumer, [you can't use] these tired old mass media techniques we've been using …

Hurley (Resolute Communications): One [thing] that we haven't addressed – it may not happen overnight – [is] any of the changes that may happen to DTC advertising and then whatever shift, if that's one way to get out some of the risks and benefits of drugs. It's going to shift more to other types of media, too.

Iacono (PRWeek): With the changes in media, the younger journalists coming in being expected to not only work for print, but also blog or take video, do you feel you have to be even more of a partner with the media?

Parisi (AstraZeneca): I actually think it's still kind of old-fashioned principles. You have to invest more time in engagement and reach outside of the story. So, you need to be able to build and refresh and have those relationships, at that trust level, with reporters and editors in question. So, when you get that reactive story, the story that's not necessarily the story you wanted to talk about, at least you can give them the information that's relevant and you'll have a different kind of perspective. And then when you get into these other areas, like drug safety and the more technical side, if that means bringing along the scientists from R&D along and spending an hour, that's the kind of investment that's not so futuristic …


Tom Jones (Invigorate Communications): You're not pursuing it because it's an opportunity to grow the market. It's almost forced on you. It's like the more that we lose oil, the faster that we're going to learn how to find some other fuel source … You're forced to recognize that blogs are in your face and you have to do something about them so, suddenly, PR firms have to get educated really quickly as to what the impact of those are, as well as what the opportunities are, as well …

Iacono (PRWeek): [Many pharmaceutical companies] have announced layoffs in the coming years and months, and that brings in to the whole internal communications aspect … Do you feel that internal communications is becoming more of a concern?

Jones (Invigorate Communications): But you have to look at internal communications [as] it's not just internal, it's external. When Ludwig Hantson wrote his e-mail a couple weeks ago about the 550 layoffs at Novartis, it was on Café Pharma in two seconds … But that was designed for the Internet.

Kerins (Pfizer): You have to write your memos for the outside.

Russo (Russo Partners): It was on Café Pharma before the announcement that it was coming. There was chatter about that. But, I think, with regards to the media, it's a time for us to really be creative because now news is so immediate. Most every print outlet has a blog of some sort and so it's up to us to really package the news very differently. Everyone wants their own angle. What you hear about today, you read in The New York Times tomorrow. You've already read it about five times before you get that newspaper .They don't want to repeat what's on Yahoo or other sites or The New York Times own Web site and, so, I think, in a way, it's good for us because it gives us an opportunity to shape stories differently – to look at different angles, to look at different audiences, to package information a lot differently.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): There's an incredible focus on trying to include the way we communicate internally and I do agree that you can no longer say that your communications is for an internal audience or that your external communications, for that matter, is for an external audience because what you do, externally, is going to influence your employee base significantly. But, in terms of really creating a culture and really trying to drive change, internal communications, I think, plays a significant role. Sometimes, it's about selling the product and selling the product of the company but it's also about getting feedback because then you can make tweaks and you can really understand where people are coming from.

Jones (Invigorate Communications): But it still gets archived … and it's still discoverable. I'm just saying that the fear factor of internal communications finding its way outside. I think that more and more companies, in my opinion, need to get away from the electronic means of communication and get a little more old-fashioned with some town hall meetings and face-to-face stuff that's not as recordable. Enough cannot be said anymore about proximity and what it does, and how it sort of takes away the tone deafness of either e-mail or the Internet or even stuff that's just being broadcast.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): We just had a townhall meeting with our chairman. Obviously, though, it had to be webcast but it was simulcast because it's a global company. So, obviously, you can't that face-to-face contact all the time. And, then, we do record it, frankly, because if I'm in China, you want to make sure that all your employees are able to get the news that they can, as close to the same time as possible. I think that, in this industry, we have such a fear of writing things down. I think we're overly fearful. I mean, I think we need to be responsible, we need to think through what we're saying, we need to think through what we're writing, and we should do that, anyway.

Iacono (PRWeek): Quite frankly, that's something that all PR people should be doing. Because you're thinking through everything, and you are watching every little word, does that make you more effective? Or [do you] have better relationships with the media?

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): I try to be very careful but I don't think I should completely avoid writing anything.

Kerins (Pfizer): I want to make sure that the information out there is correct, first and foremost. If we have an issue, guess what? We better find out about it quickly, we better address it quickly. And that's I think something we haven't done enough of in this industry, and we need to get out there and just do it, because we're getting hammered .

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): We become paralyzed because we're so fearful. But then we're not doing our jobs making sure people understand and making sure that we're communicating. We're losing because we're so fearful of social media. I don't think we're alone but we're very far behind in terms of what we should be doing from a social media perspective, and a lot of it comes down to fear – fear of litigation, fear of being sued – but we need to do our job, too, because we're losing in that way when we're not effectively communicating.

Iacono (PRWeek): Is it hard from a communicator's point of view to see something that's wrong [online] and not be able to correct it? How do you counteract what can be wrong information available to so many people?

Hotvedt (Ketchum): Maybe it's just the latest manifestation of what we've always had anyway. You say, the wild West of the Internet. It used to be the tabloids – obviously, some more responsible than others, granted. But there have always been media outlets or means of communication about drugs. From the perspective of the people in this room, we're the outer fringe and this is just the latest manifestation of it.

Russo (Russo Partners): I do think you have to really monitor that information and make a decision as to how much trouble it's going to cause you. And, then work with third-party groups to try and alter that information in some way. I've seen too many experiences where the smallest comments someplace will result in an article in The New York Times and you can't be caught in that situation.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): I agree that we have to have our advocates out there who can stand up, but we also have to stand up as an industry. And, I think that that's also been a problem. We roll over and feel that we can't say [anything], we can't argue against this, we can't state our position. When people have all this false information out there, or misinformation, we can play a role. I don't think we've done it effectively yet but it's [about] positioning ourselves as a credible source. It really does start with transparency, laying your cards out on the table, for better or for worse, and helping people understand how regulated, how we're required to provide information that is accurate – more so than any other entity out there.

Steele (Cephalon): What we've tried to do is step outside our offices and have that face-to-face interaction with those individuals, who impact what we do. We went and met with [the FDA], so you knew who we were. Certainly, every organization has its own reputation and there are a lot of great people who work in these organizations and we just wanted to open that dialogue. And sometimes that's relative to the advocacy area but I think that there's a role for communicators to also get out there. I can't tell you the number of groups I've pulled together to listen, to have transparent conversations about the real issues that are impacting our products, and the patients who use them, and the physicians who prescribe them, and just asking: “What do you honestly think?”

Morrissey (Dorland Global): And, doing that doesn't expose you anymore.

Kerins (Pfizer): We've got a rule now that if a top-tier reporter calls on one of our products, they will speak to a medical professional, whether that's CNBC or the Associated Press. If they're calling about a legal issue, that's a different conversation. But, if they're calling because they heard there's a new study out about Lipitor, and they want to hear about Lipitor, and whatever the issue of the day may be … they will speak to a Pfizer medical person. No longer are we throwing statements over the wall.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): I have noticed that the FDA has really stepped up. What's been the reaction, I guess, internally at your organization? Has it been embraced?

Zawisza (FDA): Internally, it's not a bad thing.

Russo (Russo Partners): I feel very strongly that you can't over manage the media and one of the media's big complaints about the pharmaceutical industry is that they feel that they're over managed. I think when you do that, they resent it and they will tend to write negative stories. You can't always be sure that they're going to write what you want them to write. Probably, they're not going to write what you want them to write, a lot of times. I think, by and large, you're much better cooperating with the media than you are stonewalling them.

Kerins (Pfizer): We have a product [called Chantix] for smoking cessation and there's been a lot of coverage on it recently. And, stories started getting out – and, again, we'll never fault a reporter if they get it right – and some of them got it right, they did a good job at it. And, some of them sensationalized and just blew it out of proportion. They looked at the label and looked the AE section, and called them side effects. Those kinds of things are not just helpful. We got to the point where we just took it one step further and [said], “We're going to hold a roundtable.” We put out notices to dozens of reporters that said, “Come to our [headquarters]. We're going to sit down and we're going to talk to you.” We brought in our chief medical officer, we brought in our head of drug safety, we brought in our vice president in charge of this particular product. They told them all about the stats of smoking, how it kills; talked about what we do know about the clinical trials; what we know about the safety profile of the drug; and then said, “Ask us your questions.” And, for over an hour, they sat there and asked us any question. We invited bloggers, we invited wire services, broadcast. We had two dozen journalists in the room. Six financial analysts showed up and we had over half a dozen third parties. We are looking for new and innovative ways for us to communicate about our products, on all sides. What do we know? What don't we know? What's the balance of the product? And, what are the questions you may have?

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): Did [the analysts] monopolize? You know that's always the fear.

Kerins (Pfizer): Interestingly enough, they did not monopolize. In fact, there were a lot of follow-up questions after, too, but we opened a little bit more of a chain of a dialogue than we have done in the past. So, each one of these things becomes one step further for us. And, again, you have to do it in a certain, controlled environment and make sure that everything you say is appropriate, you're not overhyping any one area. But, what we were doing in the past was not working. We've got to take this to the next level.

Jones (Invigorate Communications): I think what's great about that is that it fosters more word-of-mouth marketing. I think that's a real non-traditional means of things you can now measure in a way that [is] important.

Iacono (PRWeek): Do you see because of the consumer scrutiny and awareness more of a pressure to do work with advocacy groups, or to change how you are working with them, or aligning with them?

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): We've done some good work with advocacy groups and one of the reasons why I had said it's important for our industry to stand up, for each individual company to stand up. If we're going to engage these advocacy groups and expect them to speak on our behalf, then we need to be able to speak on our behalf and give them some cover, so to speak. But, with that said, we need engage advocacy groups a lot. I think we would face some serious issues without [the advocacy groups] inserting balance, in terms of the discussion out there. They were able to do that more effectively than we could. I mean, obviously we have a vested interest – they have a vested interest, too – but it's nice to have other voices out there . We should be forging more of those relationships because it's always nice to have a third party that speaks on your behalf because it gives you more credibility.

Hurley (Resolute Communications): [Third-party groups] are also a channel -- I mean, a media channel, as well, not just only advocating them as spokespeople, and as a group that goes out and reaches one-on-one. From their Web sites, from posting news on their sites to using the cables of thought leaders to their own podcasts and things that you need to treat them almost as a channel, a media channel almost.

Steele (Cephalon): I wouldn't use the word ‘channel' as [much as] partner. So, I agree with Gwen and we have partnered with and worked with third-party organizations. We had several safety alerts that went out last year, which were impactful, and we felt that it was important for those third-party organizations which were directly affected or touched those patient communities should hear it from us. So, as part of our outreach, we reached out to them, spent a lot of time having discussions so that when their constituency reached out to them, they weren't surprised. They had the information. I think it helped with us kind of reinforcing our commitment to transparency. And, sometimes, they disagree and I think that's OK. I think it's healthy for everyone to have a seat at the table and an independent voice at the table for us to take that information back and communicate our perspective in a way that's broader and, at the same time, it gives us an opportunity to share our point of view.

Morrissey (Dorland Global): It's better for them to have that disagreement with us and that discussion, than without us.

Fisher (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals): And to know where they stand because, again, that can influence your position because you may not have had that perspective before so it's critical and that was something that this industry didn't do as well for many years, because we were low-key. I think we've come a long way in terms of building those partnerships, which are critical. For a lot of the advocacy groups, they feel challenged being our partners because they come under a lot of criticism about funding and various things like that. Their credibility, sometimes – they may feel that it's undermined and so we have a lot of work to do on that front.

Steele (Cephalon): To your point, I do think it's challenging for organizations to grapple with transparency and working with pharmaceutical companies but I do think that they appreciate … any opportunity to have that open dialogue with us.

Key points:
Healthcare PR pros need to consider how they communicate risk to patients

Though the healthcare industry has been leery to join the social media conversation because of regulatory issues, it can no longer ignore it as a tool to directly reach consumers

Working with third-party organizations can be beneficial to both entities involved

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